When you are a working mom and your child gets sick

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I'm sitting at my desk, finishing up a report, heading to an important meeting with a new client and my cell phone rings. I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach - no one calls me during the day, except daycare. Sure enough, my baby is sick - fever of 101. I have to go pick him up. I tell them I'm downtown (almost an hour commute away) and will figure out who is going to pick him up.

I get off the phone and feel panicky. I open my calendar. There is no way I can leave today, I have 2 important client meetings and my monthly meeting with my boss.

Luckily, I sort of expected this one. My son recently started daycare and I know that those first few months are really challenging because they have to build their immune systems. With my oldest, I didn't expect how often he would get sick and it caused me SO much stress. I was overwhelmed, worried, scared - there were lots of tears.

If you are at this stage, you should know that the beginning (or the first flu season) is the worst and it will get better. This is a phase, like almost everything in parenting. But that doesn't change the fact that this phase is HARD. For me it's the unexpected nature of sickness that I find really overwhelming.

This feels like a huge mental load I carry around, trying to anticipate if and when he will get sick and then who will take care of him.

Last weekend he was sick (lingering from the week before, when he missed 2 days of daycare). On Saturday he still had a fever, so I started planning. I looked at my calendar and could stay at home Wednesday. Monday, I had 4 hours of external client meetings that had been scheduled for months - not easy to move. I was at a conference out of town presenting on Tuesday. Thursday and Friday, I had meeting with people who were helping me figure out how I could start my own business - the top priority in our house at the moment.

So who else could take care of him? My mom offered to come into town Thursday if I needed her. I called our old nanny - she was free Tuesday and Friday. I asked so many people about Monday, but couldn't find anyone, so my husband would have to take it. He’s a mechanic gets paid by the job (so based on how many cars he fixes), so would lose a day of pay, which is why he doesn’t stay home often. I spent a couple of hours figuring this all out.

Guess what happened?

He was better by Sunday and had a great week at daycare, not a single sign of illness!

It feels like my boys are never sick when I have a contingency plan, but when I don't expect it - that's when it happens. That's why it's so important to have a plan.

Have a plan

When you are a working mom and you suddenly have to drop everything to deal with a sick child, it can be SO hard. This seems like the essence of balancing bravely. Whether you have to leave work or have 6 phone calls to find someone to cover, it can feel so overwhelming. You might be one of the lucky few who has a kid who rarely gets sick or has easily available help (e.g., family who can take your child for the day). If you don't worry about this, you can take a moment to be grateful [LINK halifax]. For the rest of us, we need to have a plan.

1. Ask for help

I'm not good at asking for help. I don't like asking for help. It makes me feel embarrassed that I can't do it all. But I have to keep reminding myself that 100 years ago villages or communities raised children, rather than small family units. I work full-time and take care of my family. Asking for help doesn't make me weak, it makes me and my family stronger.

2. Who can take care of your child?

I have a list of people who can step in, that way when you have this moment of panic, you can at least start by looking at your list. Here are people (or groups of people) you can think about:

  • Spouse

  • Family (e.g., parents, in-laws, siblings, cousins, grandparents...)

  • Friends/community (e.g., other moms, family friends, neighbors, people from your church)

  • Babysitters (with my first, I used Care.com [LINK] to get a list of possible babysitters)

  • Emergency care.  There are some daycares that provide emergency care and even take sick children. I have never used one, but I know people who have. I have had a great experience using Care.com to find temporary help, a nanny, and someone who comes to the house once a week to prep meals.



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    3. Tell your boss, co-workers, and clients

    One of my biggest worries when my first child started daycare and then started getting sick was that people would think I wasn't committed enough to my job. But now that's he much older and I have taken time off when he was sick, to take him to appointments, and for special occasions (e.g., school concerts), I realize that most people understand this tension between work and family and people have not criticized me for it, but respected me for my honesty and commitment. I have also been surprised by people's empathy. A few weeks ago I had to move a meeting because I had strep throat for the third time in a year – maybe I need another post about that, what do you do when you get sick. At the rescheduled meeting I apologized profusely to the clients. One of the clients, a senior policy maker (but relatively young, probably in his mid-forties) shared that he completely understands. His wife has a senior role and they have 3 children; as a family they struggle so much with balancing what to do when kids get sick, especially since it often happens back to back. After the meeting, I reflected on how my biggest fear was actually that he would think I was not committed to the project. This helped give me some perspective and recognize that we are all humans dealing with similar issues and when we are open about these challenges people can understand where we are coming from. Not everyone will understand, but you would be surprised who will be supportive.

    4. Find ways to get work done

    This is not possible for all jobs, but for many roles, work does not have to be done in the office from 9-5. This is definitely the case for me. So when my boys get sick and I'm the one to stay home, I try to find all of those extra minutes to get things done. I get up early – often 5am to get in work before anyone else in the house wakes up. I work during naps. The moment my husband comes home, I hand him the kids and go get work done (sometimes I leave the house since there are so many distractions) and I work after they go to bed. It is unusual for me to need to do all 4 of these, but it has happened.

    I also discovered a new trick that I wish I had thought of earlier. I had one and only one important meeting (by phone) that I didn't want to reschedule, and I didn't want a baby in the background (I don't mind having the baby makes noise when they are internal meetings with my staff, but don't want it with clients). So I stayed home, worked during nap, and then had a retired neighbor take him for a 1 hour walk during my meeting. The neighbor wouldn’t be prepared to watch my son all day, but was surprisingly open to watching him for one hour.

    For me, finding ways to get work done isn't just about getting the work done, it's also about showing my dedication and commitment to my job. Yes, I have a sick kid. Yes, I am taking care of him and making him feel better. But I'm also taking care of the really important things that need to get done at my office. The key is prioritizing what I work on.

    5. Get a nanny

    We haven't gone this route because of illness, but I know a family that has. A colleague of mine has a son with respiratory complications, so every time he gets sick, he then gets chest infections. This doubles or triples the length of time he's sick. In the end it was just too many days off work, so they decided to get a nanny instead of daycare. Note that nannies get sick too, but normally not as often as young kids. She was very happy with this choice and his respiratory issues calmed down by the time he started Kindergarten.

    What is your plan for when kids get sick?

    If you are back at work or going back soon, you need a plan for when your baby gets sick. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, please understand. Brainstorm every possible person that could help you. Tell your boss and co-workers. Find other ways to get work done, even if you have to be at home.